Legalism: Old and New Perspectives

Over the years my own thinking about legalism has become more nuanced but I want to map out what legalism is in the context of the New Testament. After years of teaching Galatians and pondering legalism in Paul’s mind, I’m convinced many get confused about what the word “legalism” means. Thus, folks say “That’s legalism!” So some rubble needs to be cleared out first. Recently I’ve seen the word “legalism” referred to the commands of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as if giving a commandment is tantamount to legalism, and on top of that as if the Torah of Moses is just a big bold case of legalism itself. Far from the truth. Time to think about legalism again.

How do you define legalism? What is a good illustration of legalism for you?

Legalism is not believing in the importance of law or rules or authorities; it is not rules themselves; legalism is not even following kosher laws. More often than not, this sort of definition of legalism — equating it with rules — often comes from someone who has been told to do something they don’t want to do. (As a teenager telling her parents that a 10pm curfew is “legalism.”)

So what is it? It depends on which person you ask – and that’s such an important thing to realize.

For the Old Perspective, legalism is the human effort to justify himself/herself before God on the basis of works; this means Pharisees and Judaism as a whole was marked by legalism, so Paul’s beef with “works of the law” is a beef with Judaism as a whole, and (once we get into some forms of later Protestant thinking) anything in the Torah is legalism.

For the New Perspective, “legalism” – a word not often used by New Perspective folks – would be those Mosaic laws that distinguish Jews from Gentiles, like Sabbath and circumcision and kosher laws, and that are used to demand that a Gentile become a Jew, or adopt the Mosaic Torah, in order to complete one’s salvation.

My big sketch of the meaning of legalism is this:

Legalism is any practice or belief that is added to the gospel that compromises the sufficiency of Christ as Savior and jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance. Secondarily, then, legalism demands that one adopt a group’s special markers in order to be fully acceptable to God.

Legalism then is the charge against you or me, often sensed at the deepest level, that we are not accepted by God in Christ and indwellt by the Holy Spirit.

Let me put this on the table: one can “add” something — say adopting some church’s special markers or church membership or Sunday school attendance or not drinking Belgian beers or a stipulation about what time for a teenager to get home at night — and not at all be compromising Christ or jeopardizing the Spirit. So, it’s not simply about having rules or laws or regulations.

Everything in Paul’s letter to the Galatians aims at Galatians 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery.” Or, one could translate it: “Christ liberated us into liberation!” Legalism aborts liberation or side-tracks liberation or blunts the glory of liberation, but it’s not because of the idea of liberation. Legalism does this to liberation because it attacks Christ and the Spirit. Freedom is freedom from “works of the law” in order to be admitted into the good company of God, symbolized in full fellowship in the Body of Christ.

Legalism always ends up adding something to the gospel. What might those things be? Laws, rules, regulations, experiences, education, cultural taboos or political parties. So, yes, legalism is about laws or practices or beliefs that are added to the gospel, and the result of the addition is that it compromises the sufficiency of Christ or jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit. And, again, it requires folks to join some group’s special markers.

Legalism often is noted by an overemphasis on performance that, in some way, calls into question the sufficiency of what Christ has done and what the Spirit can do.

Legalism always erects boundaries between people and puts a boundary between people who are designed by God and called by God to be at one. For Paul, this was seen in the Judaizing believes wanting the Gentiles to become Jews and, if they didn’t, then they were not accepted. Paul’s simple word against all of this is one: We are one in Christ (Gal 3:28).

Legalism creates an atmosphere that is pervaded by judgmentalism. Judgment, yes; discernment, yes. But legalism ramps this up and a judgmental spirit pervades a person — always judging others — or the church — always assigning who is in and who is out. Yes, discernment: the issue here is whether or not a person is accepted because of what Christ has done and how the Spirit can lead.

Legalism’s concerns are nearly always good things. The beliefs or practices are added to the gospel, and they are usually good things: not drinking too much or not putting yourself into a place of temptation or extra rigor in one’s spiritual disciplines — all these things could be, and frequently are, good things. But, legalism takes these things to the next level and calls into question the sufficiency of our acceptance in Christ and the adequacy of the Spirit’s power to guide us.

Legalism often goes beyond the Bible in order to protect the Bible. The additions we so often encounter in legalism are often ideas or behaviors that go beyond what the Bible says, and those extras are designed to keep us from getting near the Bible’s “rules” and “laws.” “Keep the Sabbath,” the Bible says. When does begin? Let’s say it’s 5pm on Friday evening. OK, that’s reasonable. At 5pm, one finds another working: Breaker of the Sabbath? Well, not necessarily. 5pm isn’t what the Bible says. I could go on.

Legalism, finally, often has a reverse logic: if I don’t break the law, then I am righteous. That is, “not breaking” becomes equivalent to “keeping.” But one can “not break” and not keep. I have not, the hypocrite says, had sex with another man’s wife, so I haven’t broken the law. I’ve kept the law. But, no, Jesus says, the law is about loving your wife and it’s about your mind and your heart….

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.thinktheology.co.uk/blog Andrew Wilson

    So refreshing, and so wise. These sorts of posts really see you at your best, Scot (in my view!) Thank you.

  • Jeff Y

    Excellent. Two texts I find very robust in this area are 1 Tim. 4:1-3 and Mark 7:2-3 (7:1-15 for the whole section). The 1 Timothy passage describes those who bind rules on others (abstaining from certain foods or marriage) that are actually gifts from God to be received with thanksgiving (4:4-5). In Mark 7, the Jews kept traditions of washing hands (and other items) out of a desire to be clean according to the law. When Jesus did not do this, he was questioned & judged. The desire was good; the binding of rules on others was not.

    I appreciate your use of “adding to” (which Deuteronomy brings out in the famous Deut. 4:2 text – “neither add to nor take away …”). Taking away, it seems to me, would be the opposite – not doing (or arguing as unnecessary) what God has instructed. A large swath of believers, it seems to me, have focused on the danger of the “taking away” without much focus on the danger of “adding to.”

  • Jeff Y

    Actually, the main reference in Mark should be Mark 7:3-5.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Very helpful and clear.

  • MatthewS

    The example of legalism that has left a mark on my life is Bill Gothard, who is still chugging away at it.

    Early on, he needed to re-define grace as “the desire and power to do God’s will.” http://billgothard.com/teaching/grace

    I am involved in some online groups of those who survived his teachings. Gothard wrote a response against us (http://www.recoveringgrace.org/media/Letter-from-Bill-Gothard.pdf) in which he a long-standing pillar in his thinking: “rock music” is of the devil even when it is CCM such as Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, etc. A guiding light in his approach (and reiterated in his letter) has long been Haggai 2:11-14, when a pure thing touches an impure thing, the pure thing becomes impure, not the other way around.

    A constant focus on “purity” leads to some of the dynamics named in the OP, including overemphasis on performance (constantly questioning if one is being holy enough, pure enough) , an atmosphere that is pervaded by judgmentalism (being confident that others are not being pure enough), erects boundaries between people (constant need to protect the family from the evil out there, including youth groups at church and other such impure things.

    A quick sketch of some of Gothard’s reasoning from his letter that I linked:

    “To think that we can add “clean” words to the world’s unclean music is like believing we can add some drops of pure water to a glass of poison and heave a healthy drink.”

    Today’s Christian youth are addicted to porn at alarming rates. The underlying battle in this is “unclean spirits” that are “controlling the minds, emotions, and wills of believers.” The gateway drug that is enabling these spirits is “unclean music” (again, this would include anything with a beat, including any and all contemporary Christian music / contemporary worship music). Light and darkness do not have fellowship, and the call to the believer is to “come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean.”

  • MatthewS

    Something I have seen in relation to legalism is a focus on purity (or being clean, or holy, or separate, or dedicated, or whatever the group’s preferred term).

    In the “Freakonomics” documentary, there is an absolutely fascinating section about Sumo wrestling. Part of the thesis is that purity easily functions as a mask that hides corruption. Neither the police nor the society at large wanted to face the reality that the sport was rife with corruption, even when there were dead bodies of would-be whistle-blowers to raise red flags.

    I see parallels to this in churches or groups that push hard on people to constantly pursue “higher standards” / purity / whatever the term, and yet they must increasingly hide internal problems and failures. This leads to covering up would-be scandals, creating a “no-talk rule” (as described in “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse). And instead of “truth in love” or “grace and truth”, the resulting ugly reality is politics as usual where the powerful use their means to protect themselves, but all in the name of God.

  • MatthewS

    “Secondarily, then, legalism demands that one adopt a group’s special markers in order to be fully acceptable to God.”

    A practical effect of this is that it can lead to some of the conditions that Jesus condemned in the teachers of the law, Pharisees and hypocrites (I say this with the understanding that there is not a direct parallel from today’s “legalist” to the Pharisees) such as in Matthew 23:4-5 and Matthew 23:23-28.

    Loading people down with burdens which the leaders themselves cannot bear, straining out gnats but swallowing camels, cups that are clean on the outside but dirty inside, whitewashed tombs: some evocative images.

    A modern-day version might be a fundamentalist preacher who makes a big issue out of clothing and hairstyles and making sure women stay submissive, meanwhile having an affair or covering up sexual abuse.

    Obviously, this is the sordid back alley of legalism, not an up-front definition. But there do seem to be some almost unavoidable consequences.

  • Joe Canner

    “…it’s not simply about having rules or laws or regulations.”

    In fact, sometimes the most insidious legalism arises from environments where there are no explicit rules and regulations. I grew up in a church with very little in the way of written rules (aside from the Bible), but came away with very judgmental attitudes towards those of other denominations or those who smoke, drank, had tattoos, etc., to the point of questioning their salvation (these attitudes still crop up uninvited, almost 30 years later). If questioned, they would have sworn up and down that salvation was by grace alone and that such things do not have anything to do with salvation, and yet the implicit attitudes and offhand comments said otherwise.

  • http://timgombis.com Tim Gombis

    This is a good description, Scot. It seems that it takes such a multi-faceted description (rather than a simplistic definition) to really get at what Paul was after.

  • T

    Scot,

    Of course, one of the main problems is this: if the only “gospel” in the gospels is the part where Jesus died for our sins, or if the gospel only speaks consolation for our sins (Luther), then much of the gospels, especially Jesus’ more challenging teachings, are not gospel at all, but “law” or one of the many dreaded legalistic “add ons” to the gospel. When one defines “gospel” narrowly as “justification by faith (alone)” as in Luther’s classic Law/Gospel approach or other classic Reformed articulations, Jesus becomes, in effect though never in title, the legalist in chief through many or most of his teachings. There’s just no where for that stuff to fit in that gospel or no way to paraphrase quote many of his teachings (or some of James, or John, or even some of Paul) without being accused of legalism.

  • Andrew

    Thanks for this post, Scot.

    Seeing this, I immediately think of the recent debates over “insider movements” of people embracing Christ from within an Islamic context. It seems to me that the factions who express the most hesitation toward these groups might be those most scandalized by allegations that they are acting as legalists and neo-Judaizers. I wonder if anyone has taken this approach in discussing the issue.

  • Rick in IL

    Legalism believes that, apart from faith/trust in the finished work of Christ, there is anything a believer might think, do, say, or become that will cause that believer to gain, maintain, secure, or improve their status in the eyes of God; or deteriorate or lose their status in the eyes of God.

  • Jonathan

    My dad often teaches that “legalism loves the tithe, but hates the corners of the field.” Pithy as it is, the adage still holds true as I read through your points.

  • Rob Grayson

    Great post Scot – thank you.

  • Glenneun

    MatthewS,
    I am very sorry to hear of your experience with legalism, especially in regards to community and life in Christ. But I would not disagree with grace as also having the quality of “the desire and power to do God’s will”. For this desire and power is unmerited and given to us freely by God’s favor apart from anything we might do of our own power. I like to think of this as Christ’s indwelling presence in me through my union with Him and the presence of the Holy Spirit. I think the problem is how one define’s God’s will. All of the examples you cite – rock music, hairstyles, makeup, etc. are not to be found in God’s law itself and are the result of not understanding how great the demands are and how fully Christ has meet the requirements of the law’s demands.

  • Laurie

    I really like this post, much of legalism seems obvious. However, I couldn’t help wondering where Richard Stearn’s “The Hole in Our Gospel,” or with a different emphasis, Platt/Chan with a push that “Disciples make disciples” fit in the equation. I’ve appreciated and valued their teaching, but this discussion leaves me wondering when is an “add on” an “add on” or just part of the “loving” and place of “your mind and heart?”

  • http://www.normmacdonald.wordpress.com Norm

    Scot, if you have a moment, I’d be interested in your thoughts on 2 Peter 1:5-8 as it relates to your comments on legalism. I’m thinking specifically of verse 5 and the word ἐπιχορηγέω; “supply” (NASB), “support” (NRSV) or “supplement” (ESV). Thanks.

  • norman

    Just in case Scot was alluding to some of my post recently concerning our discussion of Jesus SOTM I want to quote an excerpt where I attempted to clarify the discussion and my stance. Notice that I’m in basic agreement with Andrew’s position.

    Begin quote:
    “Now take Andrews approach even though he may be misreading me also, but at least he lays out a balanced approach in this discussion that leads to dialogue and learning. He presents the “ritualistic acts” as the problem that Paul is against and I think he makes a good case for that understanding. He also distinguished those with “the moral aspects of Torah” which is where the discussion needs to focus more upon IMO. …
    It is very difficult to study Paul extensively in Romans and Galatians and not come away with the understanding that he considered the Jewish practices of Law Keeping in vogue at the time of Messiah to be a huge if not “The” problem with the way religion was practiced in those days.”
    End quote.

    Scot has said that he’s spent many years developing his view on this subject and he is about as learned a theologian you will encounter but he didn’t iron these issues out overnight it seems himself. The splitting of the proverbial grace and Law baby requires much studying IMHO and it’s easy to step one foot too far in either direction at times. Essentially I think Christ nails it with the two Commandments which should keep one pretty well in focus.

    “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. “

    That is the foundation according to Christ.

  • Josh

    I like your definition Scott, ‘Legalism is any practice or belief …’ Quite often in my experience, legalism is defined as anything someone must do, ignoring the possibility that beliefs can be substituted as laws and rules people have to think or believe in order to be saved.

    Which brings me to my next observation. Perhaps there are good forms of legalism…
    Rule 1) Believe in Jesus for eternal life
    Rule 2) Have a relationship with Jesus
    Rule 3) Take up your cross and follow him
    Rule 4) Go to heaven, Don’t go to Hell
    Rule 5) …

    How do you define legalism? Imposing laws and rules on people or oneself to regulate belief and behaviour. For good or bad.

    What is a good illustration of legalism for you? If as a Christian you don’t believe your nature is sinful and every thought pouring out of your heart is sinful then you cannot be a Christian or saved.

  • http://nailtothedoor.com Dan Martin

    I really appreciate and agree with your article here, Scot. However, it appears to me you have made, in your definition of legalism, exactly the argument that I have raised (to you and others) in the past regarding the creeds, and particularly the Nicene Creed. How, precisely, are these creeds not going “beyond the Bible in order to protect the Bible” just as you described above?

  • http://theatompanopticon.wordpress.com/ Brandon Blake
  • MatthewS

    Glenneun #15,

    We may be in agreement on this, actually.

    It’s not a problem to say that God’s grace results in, or brings, or includes “the desire and power…” but it is not OK to say that is the definition of it. Gothard wipes away the typical “unmerited favor” definition as wrong; but he’s wrong to do so.

    I believe that the fruit of the Spirit and the image of taking off and putting on are two very important NT metaphors, and that we are enabled in these things by God’s grace. But if grace is exactly only “desire and power” then grace quickly reduces to a focus on my performance and ceases to be grace.

    Does that work for you?

  • Tim Heebner

    Scot’s definition of legalism is what I grew up understanding legalism to be. But over the last several years, I believe there’s another type – the legalism of right belief.

    For example, for lack of a better term, the Neo-Calvinist will preach endlessly about how bad we are and that its only through the grace of God that we are even alive right now and not struck down due to God’s wrath, and that salvation is not at all what we do or how well we obey the law. So therefore the Neo-Calvinist doesn’t fit into what Scot lays out as legalism. They have no problem with alcohol, cigars, rock music, the latest tools for attracting people to their church, etc.

    But the Neo-Calvinist will emphasize that you must have correct belief. And if you don’t believe in the right way, and that all other versions of the specifics of salvation or atonement are wrong or are heresy, then you are need of serious correction or discipline (emphasis on church discipline is very high). They will go through your church library and throw out all books which don’t adhere to right belief. All Sunday School and preaching must be based on this same right belief, because if proper apologetics are used and applied to all passages of Scripture, this will lead to you to the right way to believe (their version). And then if you are able to preach it right, this will naturally lead the people to right practice. If you aren’t practicing right, then you must not be believing the right thing.

    Scot says “Legalism often is noted by an overemphasis on performance that, in some way, calls into question the sufficiency of what Christ has done and what the Spirit can do.”

    I believe this approach of overemphasizing “right belief” is another form of legalism rearing its ugly head today.

  • http://www.drbilldonahue.com Bill Donahue

    Thanks Scot – and many good comments here, too. I spoke to an emerging, young leader of a missional church (I know, this is lingo but you get the idea). We had a great conversation and I found myself both encouraging him and gently warning him — of a rising legalism I see. I have definitely seen, and been the recipient of, judgmental remarks made by “new legalism” types within coalitions and movements seeking to further the gospel. At times I wonder if the zealots in the movements are more interested in being right than righteous, especially as they “confront” the rest of us.

    But I challenged him to beware of another form, a kind of “who is really missional” legalism. Speakers and writers alike are defining who is and who is not “missional”. If you are attractional in any way you obviously cannot be missional; if you are not leading people to Christ in your small group it is not missional; if your church is not moving into urban communities and living among the poor, you are not missional. On it goes. I genuinely appreciate the zeal and passion, and the call to something better. And I also worry about the Pharisaic elitism that sometimes comes with it.

    I told him that younger leaders like him can woo us and guide us and lead us to be more missional (please do so!!), without presenting themselves (unintentionally but often in reality) as superior, creating a “them and us” barrier, condemning other strategies or former movements that “just don’t get it,” so to speak. I am concerned of this trend – I see it everywhere. And I must be aware lest I see it more and more in the mirror, too, where I despise it the most. Thanks for the good words.

  • Mike M

    Thanks Dr. M. We need clarification not obfuscation.

  • http://getrad2.blogspot.co.nz Blessed Economist

    Great stuff, Scot. I have observed that legalism works in two ways.

    1. Legalism can corrupt the gospel, by turning it into Jesus plus something (as Scot notes). The problem is that when a good command is turned into a criterion for who is in and who is out, immense detail is needed, as there is always one more exception that needs to be clarified. This seems to be the game the Pharisees were playing. For example, if sabbath is a gift for life, “have a good day off” is enough. However, if sabbath is a criterion for assessing who is in or out, precise rules about multiple categories of work are needed.

    2) Legalism can cripple the Christian life. Humans seem to have a propensity for living by rule (maybe some personality types more than others). Christian living can slip into complying with a set of rules. A Christian becomes a person who does not do things. This fosters pride, exclusivism and boredom. Rules may be useful for beginners, but the Christian life is walking in the Spirit and following wherever he leads, letting the life of Christ emerge, and dealing with the ambiguity through his grace. This is much harder and more exciting than living by a bunch of rules.

  • Christopher

    And he did [that which was] right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the ways of David his father, and declined [neither] to the right hand, nor to the left. – 2Ch 34:2 KJV


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